- Short Track
Jessica Smith fulfilling Olympic dream, no matter what the cost
Here are the last three paragraphs from Jim Murray’s column after the Atlanta Olympic Park bombing in 1996.
Has the cost of the Games gone up too much when it starts adding up to human lives? I think not. We already have enough bars on our windows, locks on our churches, parties we cancel. You don't change the world by hiding from it. ...
You think of the Games as mankind's finest hour, its best hope. You want to cover its joyousness, its "world's fastest humans," a Swedish king telling a Jim Thorpe "You are the finest athlete in the world" and Thorpe replying "Thanks, king!" You want Olga Korbut baby dolls on balance beams, marathoners staggering to a finish line, Bob Hayes streaking a relay leg, Jesse Owens showing there's no such thing as a master race, Babe Didrikson showing there's no such thing as a master gender.
You want to tell the killers, "It's no good -- you can't win!" No medals for murder. You want to cover athletes, not terrorists. You want those dark, demonic forces to stay out of this festival of youth. You want to cover what's right with the world, not what's wrong with it.
Here is a 30-year-old woman from Michigan named Jessica Smith. She is 5-feet tall (maybe), she weighs somewhat less than a box of Ikea furniture, and she has a 10-centimeter tear in her quad muscle. She was the best in the world in a different sport and gave it up to get here. Some thought she never would. Her coach resigned in disgrace just 18 months ago. She is a pretty serious long shot to medal and, realistically, a long shot to even get close to medaling.
And she is utterly and completely living out the biggest dream she ever had.
“I don’t know,” Jessica Smith says when asked how long she has been wanted to be an Olympian. “All my life?”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Growing up Jessica Smith
* * *
What is that thing that gets inside some people, the thing that makes them look at the Olympics for the first time and say: “that is exactly where I want to be. That’s where I’m SUPPOSED to be?”
Our daughter Katie was 7 years-old when she watched Sanya Richards-Ross bring home the London gold in the 4x400m relay. Ever since then she has told people she intends to run the anchor leg in the 4x400m relay at the Olympics. She had never seen a track and field event before.
There’s some kind of powerful draw there, something that never fades for a few. Jessica Smith began inline skating because her parents did. Her mom, Reina, is a barber in Michigan. Dad, Richard, drives a truck. On the side, they raced on inline skate. They put Jessica on skates when she was 2. Sometimes, her parents think it was actually 1. She was great on those skates pretty much right away. She was a phenom. At 12, she was the youngest American skater to ever compete at the Junior World Championships. By 15, she had won more than a dozen Junior gold medals.
Soon after that, she won the first of her remarkable 16 world titles.
Embedded video_content_type: Jessica Smith finishes off a dominant Olympic Trials with style
She was the best inline skater on earth and she felt confident that, sooner or later, it would become an Olympic sport. There were always whispers that it was going to happen.
“I didn’t just think that inline skating would be in the Olympics, I was sure of it,” she says. “Everyone kept telling me it was going to happen. It always seemed so close.”
And then, in 2005, when Smith was 22 years old and something of an inline skating legend she realized: Inline skating might never become an Olympic sport. Many of her friends had started skating on ice to reach the Olympics. So she hedged her bets. She kept inline skating but she also tried some long track speed skating. And then, to hedge even more, she tried some short track speed skating, too. It was, to say the least, a full schedule.
“I couldn’t do all of it,” she says. “You do all that and you can’t really become great at anything.”
Beyond that, it will wear you down. In 2007, Smith broke her collarbone at an inline event and was out for months. And that’s when Smith went all in. She had good inline sponsors. She was making a little bit of money doing it. She was the best in the world. But the Olympics -- that indescribable draw still overwhelmed her. She gave up wheels and dedicated her whole life to short track speed skating.
And it all led to 2010, the Olympics in Vancouver. She was 26 years old, still in her prime, feeling like she had made the transition to the sport. “It was hard climbing the ladder again,” she says. “There were times when I’d be at the start and I was so nervous I was shaking. But you work through it.”
She went to the 2010 U.S. Short Track Olympic Trials filled with hope. And ... she finished achingly close. She was the first alternate. She had missed the Olympics by literally a second. She was devastated for a few hours. But only a few hours. “Champions don’t quit,” she told herself. And she began training again for Sochi and 2014.
This mesmerizing, wonderful, painful ambition to be an Olympian ... she would not give it up. Maybe she could not give it up. It’s the story of every athlete here. Well, Smith’s story takes a couple of odd turns. In 2012, there was a major controversy in short track speed skating. Short track coach Jae Su Chun was charged by more than a dozen skaters of mental and physical abuse (a U.S. Speed Skating report found no pattern of abuse). He also was alleged to be behind a incident where an American skater sabotaged a competitor’s skates. He resigned late in 2012.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Jessica Smith takes Olympic Trials
Smith stayed with Chun as her coach. Because of this she has not trained with the U.S. team.
“There really was never a question for me,” she said. It came down to loyalty and her belief in Chun. It also came down to this sense of purpose. Smith had given up more or less everything in her life to live out this Olympic dream. She felt sure Chun was the right coach to get her there.
The came the final affront, the last bit that movie reviewers would call “over the top:” She hurt her quad so badly during this World Cup season that she really could not even plant her leg for the start of races. When she had MRI -- six weeks before the Olympic trial -- the rather large tear was found in her quad.
“You’re going to need surgery,” a doctor told her.
“That is NOT going to happen,” she said.
And so she rehabilitated her leg with the help of former Olympic hero and orthopedic surgeon Eric Heiden and was able to feel pretty healthy going into the Olympic Trials. And there she won all three races (500m, 1,000m, 1,500 m) and she was finally and definitively and Olympian.
“Will you have surgery after the Olympics,” she was asked.
“I guess it depends how much my leg tears apart during these Games,” she says with a slight smile.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Through the lens: Jessica Smith
Was it worth it? All this? There were money concerns. There were injuries. There was the coaching storm. There was the switching of sports. There was the devastation of missing the dream by one second with no guarantees of that same chance ever coming around again.
Smith says: “Of course it was worth it.” There are a million different ways to feel about the Olympic Games. There’s the politics. There’s the overwhelming amounts of money. There’s the corruption. There are the security threats, and there are the nationalistic rituals. But we keep coming back to the Olympics because, corny as it sounds, there really is something underneath, a story that lifts us up, and achievement that inspires us, a moment we don’t forget. There’s something that can spark a young girl to imagine, and a young woman to chase after her imagination and then keep chasing.
“I don’t know exactly what it will be like,” she says happily of marching in the Opening Ceremony. “I’m ready to find out, though.”
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski